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There is an article by Paul Vallely in the most recent Church Times about whether it’s bad manners to Tweet during a church service. It sparked quite an interesting discussion on my Facebook page, and I found myself wanting to say more about it than is really appropriate in the comments there, so I thought I would open up the debate further.

First of all, I don’t think that the real argument is about manners. I don’t mind if people in the congregation take notes (or doodle!) when I am preaching. I notice when I’m in the pulpit that some people have pen and paper to hand and others are on their phones or tablets. To me, it’s a sign they are (or might be) actually listening and thinking about what I am saying (or what they are hearing – all preachers know that the two are not necessarily the same thing). I agree with Vallely that tweeting is not the same as taking notes; it is a form of publication and communication, but how people want to engage (or not) with the sermon is up to them.

However, when I think about people tweeting during the rest of High Mass, I find myself getting a little twitchy. We gather as a community to pray and worship together, and part of me feels that if we spend that time viewing the service through our screens or communicating with others outside the church, our attention isn’t fully on God or our fellow worshippers. I don’t know if it’s because I’m old fashioned or because I’m terrible at multi-tasking and couldn’t pray and tweet at the same time myself or because I feel that having a small break from technology and the constant chatter of the world is no bad thing. Maybe it’s all three. And to some extent, typing away on a phone during the eucharist does feel as rude as tweeting or texting through a meal.

(I do think that there are serious questions to be asked about what is happening to us when we experience every part of our lives through a viewfinder or on a screen, and it would be more for these reasons than simply because it’s ‘bad manners’ that I would not wholeheartedly advocate the use of social media in church.)

But, on the other hand, to play devil’s advocate with myself, I know that at a church like Old Saint Paul’s, we use bells to let those both in the service and outside the walls of the church know what’s going on. Is tweeting really all that different? Is there a sense in which the two can serve the same function? Is Twitter the new sanctus bell?

The Bishop of London Richard Chartres said during the Christian New Media Conference last week that social media is the public square of today and that therefore the church porch is online. I myself argued something similar in my recent MLitt dissertation, and during a contextual bible study at our clergy conference on Paul’s speech to the Athenians, I suggested that the web is today’s Areopagus. Is it necessarily a bad thing to have tweets from a church service breaking into the chatter, alerting the people there that there is something significant going on, that there are congregations praying for them and the world in which we live?

I also know that when I am leading worship, the way in which I pray is very different from how I pray when I am sitting in the pews. Neither is more or less valid than the other. When I’m presiding, I am as aware of the congregation as I am of God, whereas when I’m in the pews, it becomes much more about my own direct and private prayers. So, if someone is tweeting during mass, does that really mean they aren’t paying attention? Could they not be ‘presiding’ in some way for those with whom they are communicating?Could it be that they decide to record part of the service because it is beautiful and prayerful and they want to share that experience with others? How can we (or should we) judge their motivations for posting something on social media during worship?

Once again, I think that when we debate how and when social media should be used by churches, it is not so much the media themselves that we are actually arguing about. At the heart of the discussion are our priorities and our understandings of what church is for and what is happening in worship. The most obvious example of these differences coming to the fore is in the practice of virtual Communion; it is impossible to talk about virtual Communion without acknowledging our different Eucharistic theologies.

Similarly, if we are going to discuss how to use social media both in church and as church, we need to recognise that we are likely to be making very different assumptions about our reasons for doing so. If, for example, we take models such as Avery Dulles’ of church as institution, community, servant, herald and sacrament, churches which function within these different models will use – and view – social media differently. A church as institution will rely on its authorities to speak for it; a church as community will use social media to strengthen that community; a church as herald will use social media to proclaim the Word, etc. This is wildly simplistic, of course, because our churches don’t tend to fit neatly into models, but hopefully you get my point. (There’s a good article on this on the New Media Project website.)

The important thing, I think, is to recognise that we we do have different priorities and callings, and all of these perspectives and gifts are needed if we are to spread the gospel well and widely. In a church like the Scottish Episcopal Church, where we say that we value diversity, shouldn’t this very real expression of diversity be acknowledged and celebrated rather than a cause of tension and offence?

13 thoughts on “to tweet or not to tweet

  1. Excellent article Kate. I am personally more suspicious of those who are doing nothing not listening than those who might tweet. The only issue is that the examples above in your picture are hardly calls to worship, and in fact verging on the catty – and whilst everyone has a right to say what they think, it would be good if it wasn’t complaints about the music or being bored!. Perhaps asking people to use a hashtag (eg) #OSP) would encourage more positive tweeting. But going back to the main point – I’ve always thought the church really needs to preach what it practices, as well as practice what it preaches. Twitter is as good a way as any.

    1. Thanks, Pip. I absolutely agree about the screenshot. I chose it partly in haste, and partly because I didn’t want to come across as too idealistic about what people might actually be tweeting during church! I also have to admit to not being entirely convinced by some of my own arguments, but I’m trying to think through it carefully rather than just have a knee-jerk reaction and leave it at that.

  2. Thanks Kate. What would you make of training intentional-tweeters? Choirs, clergy, servers, intercessors, welcomers all train to serve others as best they can. I’ve not searched to see if a church is doing this – but I’m sure there must be some. A small team of trained tweeters could each take parts of a service and tweet meaningful observations. It wouldn’t be appropriate / necessary on every Sunday – and the problem of distracting people around them in a pew would need to be addressed. Could be a valuable form of witness though.

    1. It’s an interesting thought, and one I had in mind as I watched lots of tweets coming out of Ps&Gs this evening. At the moment it seems to be more common for people to tweet during sermons than during the rest of the service, but I would be keen to see other ways of tweeting a service to see whether it can actually work.
      I’m genuinely on the fence about it (typical Anglican!).

  3. To tweet in church during a service is of the same order of activity as students taking and answering phone calls during class: highly discourteous.

    1. I don’t see it that way, partly because the person tweeting is not actually talking over (or through) the worship, and we can’t make quick assumptions about their intentions for tweeting. Yes, it can be frivolous and catty (and therefore no different from people who gossip throughout the service!) but can’t it also be missional? In an age when people are less and less familiar with what goes on inside a church, can this be a way of giving them a small glimpse of what it is we’re doing and why we find it important?

  4. Useful questions might be: why is someone Tweeting at this point? and, what would I Tweet now? What would I want tweeted/ Should there be discussion about…. tweeting from the Cross; Gethsemane? the Upper Room, “OMG he’s washing their feet, Look at Peter’s sox LOL!”

    1. Well, Maurice, you certainly have the vernacular down!

      As I say above, I do think part of this debate needs to include an awareness of what living so much of our lives on screen is doing to us as embodied beings. Why do people take selfies at funerals? Why when we watch a fireworks display do we watch in through our phone to record the moment and then post it instantly? Why do we feel the need to share our thoughts with the world via blogs, FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc? Is this sending the message that the only life truly lived is one shared online?

      But on the flip side, maybe when people do feel they are standing at the foot of the cross, they need to know they are not alone, and I have witnessed incredible acts of solidarity via social media.

      But maybe we also need to be equipping ourselves, our congregations, our youth to know how to be alone, to disconnect from each other in a healthy way, to be able to sit in silence even – especially? – in the midst of grief.

      It’s complicated. But they’re questions we – clergy, church, society – really can’t ignore.

      1. Kate, Thanks for this. I wasn’t being flippant. I really enjoy what you have posted here and think it is something we need to engage with more thoroughly.

        With regard to tweeting and finding interesting things – articles and debates – I couldn’t agree more, we are in touch with so much (almost too much, it’s hard to be discerning sometimes) that is helpful. The excitement of following and joining in the comments others make e.g. for me at ⌗bbcqt opens up a community of interested, engaged and, yes, cheeky and catty people is great fun. I’m still uneasy about the notion of having to record every moment of our lives and sharing that so publicly. But then this is where there is opportunity to meet and engage with a wider audience.

        Being a public person is something I am still finding difficult in this sphere – I want to open up things to my friends that I wouldn’t share with the whole world! And there are times when we really are alone.

        About tweeting in church: I’m glad it is still something you and others are thinking through. I think it is important to hear what others are saying (no matter how casually) about what is going on and about the performance. I think it also says something about the “message” we are trying to convey. Is it necessary to broadcast to as wide an audience as possible? Are we selling / promoting something? Is that mission?

        I think a contextual bible study would be useful, where participants are encouraged to tweet what they would feel if they were present in the story. Maybe Peter did have interesting socks.

        This is still a bit of rambled thought and I need a lot more time to think through much of what you say, but am keen to hear how your view develops. Thanks again for opening it up here.

      2. I’m with Maurice on the need to keep thinking this through. I wonder if there are two principal dimensions: intentionality and audience?
        Understanding one’s intentions in tweeting (for the sake of argument, during a service) seems crucial and would likely colour the content and tone of the tweets.
        Having a clear(ish) idea of one’s audience is perhaps another way of asking the mission question.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Maurice. I’m particularly interested in your ideas about social media, mission and ‘promotion’ of our ‘product’. I think the 5 marks of mission are as good a place as any to start thinking about that. How might social media fit into proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God; teaching, baptising and nurturing new believers; responding to human need by loving service; seeking transform unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and pursuing peace and reconciliation; and striving to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth? We obviously can’t do mission solely by social media, and in no way am I advocating a purely ‘virtual’ mission strategy, but mission and social media are hardly incompatible.

    But I know that’s an issue slightly separate again from tweeting in church…

  6. Yes, that’s very well said, Eric. And a more focused way of approaching the issue of tweeting in church as well as the point about mission. It can often feel – more so on Twitter than on FB – like we’re just putting random thoughts out there without knowing who might actually be reading, or who we are trying to reach. I think that’s one of the reasons I am struggling to find my voice on Twitter.

    (Sorry, I can’t seem to reply directly to your comment.)

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